email: natalia.c.alexeeva [ at ] gmail dot com
The mood in the logistics room desaturates, the night crew having come in straight from dinner with a telling look in your direction, nothing left between them and the launch. Funereal, you'd say, if pressed to it, but they're all MIT guys, Tokyo U, ETH-1; they know what not to do on camera.
You've been lying low behind the glass in back, feet on the briefing table with a clip of printouts organized by date, one sheet set out before you clean side up. With the stub of a colored pencil you begin to sketch the skyline of Chicago: sharp blue strokes that pop and hiss like currents. The private gym is closed till nine and the news crew guaranteed to still be out there, stalking the floor until they get their chance. Dale Yakov ducks in to say he's pulled their clearance, security's on it, but your ex-wife's worked for the Sun nigh on ten years now, back in Chicago; you know reporters.
At half past eight Kanika brings you a paper cup of coffee, white as a bell in the holder with its fellow sip-tops. Even though you get yours ahead of everyone it's tepid; Kanika's been out for something like an hour by now, and appears to have split this time between catering and guerilla warfare. No one really means to haze the interns, but GMT is heading straight for zero hundred, launch day, the law of the jungle.
The coffee is a reedy tone. "Decaf, sir," Kanika says politely. She seems the sort to only quit when there is sense in quitting. "One push of soy." Her free hand holds a finger in the air, as if gauging the direction of the wind.
Once Zurich made their own decision public, NASA had to get on board. How else could they respond? CREST was a global project from the get-go. Everybody knew it. America was the last bastion, presumably true to the symbolic value it placed on human life, but even Washington couldn't moralize much longer once Swiss philanthropists joined Skyland and the South Koreans in putting carte blanche on the table. It was a free ride into the future, too tempting when one thought of the history books: a global moment requiring a Medieval kind of hero, the kind born tasting death and the inexorable pull of greatness. It was the guys behind the money and the power recalling a dream, eager to put someone on Mars within their lifetimes. And if anyone had called the mission what it was, who among those guys would have stopped the die mid-cast? The media was foolish to predict that there would be no volunteers for what it never quite avoided calling suicide; the web journals were nearsighted when they asked who could stand to mount a one-way mission on this scale, when it was very far from certain that Russia would be able to get Mir-III up there in time to spearhead launching the supplies? It was telling that none of them could make it simple, not at first, and see that the opposite of death isn't life; not quite. It's immortality.
Around ten someone mutes the news stream. With only feeds from Central patched to sound you can hear digimaps springing greenly open at the consoles, a zigzag here and there of conversation and the bright clicks of the menus. Kanika comes back in to ask if you mind going over some projections with Lead Tech.
"Did Yakov handle Times Web?"
"A while ago, sir. Will you be leaving base tonight?" The wonder in her face is unabashed, if a touch solemn. She holds out another batch of printouts for your clip. "Doctor Ogata marked this urgent."
You square all of your printouts as if you really mean to read them over. "I'll have a look. Don't let them get to you." Ostensibly you mean Janet Ogata's people, but you're hoping Kanika will understand the rest. After all nobody's been spared the impact of the T-Web evening edition.
The coffee in the second-floor cafeteria is like a cello string bowed back and forth; quite fresh. The dispenser pipes you a hot cupful, then runs out of soy. The kitchen staff has gone off-shift till morning; there's no one to recognize your face and run for the stock room. You inspect a lukewarm pitcher of imitation milk, let the watery stuff in it slosh round and around its aluminum container, listening to the sound.
Yakov appears and threads his way through the empty tables to join you at yours. He has a greasy box with him that turns out to be mostly full of donuts.
"Last chance, Captain."
You shake your head. "The party was enough for me."
The vote last month was against treating you like a death-row convict, but the spread at the send-off dinner and the general gravity of the proceedings there could have fooled you. You told the President of the United States, "I'm honored and very excited," and you saw his face, you saw all of the faces for the one split second that mattered and you thought, soon but hardly soon enough.
Yakov shrugs and picks out a chocolate glaze, in what coming from anyone else would seem like embarrassment but in Yakov is probably just appreciation for donuts. "Bloody journalists," he says. "Is that Chicago?"
"Nice, nice. Been there on holiday?"
"Yeah." Chicago's been off limits ever since Arienne took the Sun job, though in the truer sense you left her first. There's no such thing as simultaneous great loves; anyone arguing otherwise can't have known any.
"Had to draw something new," you say. "Ran out of red."
Yakov nods. Psych has been all over you about your sketches from the start, despite the fact that drawing from dreams is a habit kept by millions of other, less instrumental weekend painters. Yakov knows better than to discuss it further, content with the official verdict citing therapy through art.
Not unlike the sort of stuff the prison system practices, you've joked. Except that's not the right analogy. You know that you are free. There is still time to walk away from all of it, down the hall and over the slate tile to the elevator; to the car and the long curbs of the airport, to Arienne and Noel.
Therein lies the real problem, too difficult to fully register with the psychologists.
Years ago, when the CREST project warranted only wild speculation, some nut actually suggested sending a convict instead of anyone with real experience in astronautics, and even much later CREST preferred candidates without dependent family. They should have realized it right away: a convict would not persist like this, nor would any man or woman with their missed life to distract them; but you, you don't let Yakov and the doctors and whoever the hell else goad you into walking away from this.
"It was only a matter of time," you say, "before T-Web went for broke and used the word murder. You don't have to disagree with it."
"Either way we damn well have to take the blowback." Yakov wipes his hands on a napkin and looks at you. "Well, not all of us. I'm envious. I am incredibly envious." And you can tell how he means it, because Yakov does not normally look wistful. His generation hasn't been brought up for it.
"So," he says. "What's the first thing you'll do when you get to Mars."
Each of you savors the word. Mars.
"A sketch," you say. It gets a chuckle. "A big circle. Then I'll do another from the ground, for three-point perspective."
"Nice, nice. Be sure to send us caps."
"Not caps. Scans. If I manage."
"I have no doubt you'll manage, for all the money going into this..." Yakov pauses, frowning. "Scans?"
You nod. You'd almost forgotten.
"Listen Dale," you say, using his name for the first time. "I'm calling in a favor."
Having partaken in more than your share of logistic debates, you know that the problem will always be fuel. Enough to get a craft three hundred million miles to Mars, but not enough for six. Enough to take one man, supplies, and habitat materials one way, forever. Unless the Russian Commonwealth manages to build a functional light-sail anytime soon, the one they've been promoting since the twenties. The projections always look so very good, with the Russians, but if Yakov and them are just blowing smoke to keep you going out there longer, waiting for the HMS Putin to make orbit over your rockpocked habitat, the smoke is going more or less where it usually goes.
"What do I tell my son," you asked at the beginning. "He's ten."
For his part Dale Yakov just shrugged. "Ten is clever age."
But the psych guys did things by the book. "You can tell him you're a hero, sir," they said. This was right at the beginning still, when they'd been told to find which candidate was soundest in mind, could go the longest out there sanely. When instead the project should have screened for the soundest madness, the functional kind that runs deep and steady and in the dark cold silent places will move slowly, slowly, cocooning itself to become something else altogether.
It takes a real pragmatist to make the grade these days. A Medieval hero couldn't share reality with stem cells and Second Life: 3-D. You are new. You were born to taste color, not death. Color hotwires any and all of your senses at will, so all of your senses know color. In high school, you worked at a store that sold wall-paint. It was your job to punch in orders, then wait while the big machine squirted in base shades and shook them together, so at first you knew them all by number, like alchemical codes. Then, one day, sorting swatches, you realized that all these variations of blue, all ninety-two versions of white had been named; and then instead of codes you thought of them by base shade title: Eggshell, Cyan, Phthalo Green, as if setting out the makings of a feast.
Aggravating, that with so many new names, with so much time, your state of mind has only gotten harder to articulate. Arienne has never really listened to the details, writing it off as handily as her birthplace and first language. Synaesthesia. Journalism put her in the habit of quotability; short sentences, straight and to the point.
"I feel just like my grandmother," she'd sometimes say to you, softly gargling those American rhotas. "Marrying someone already married to the sea." That was back in Brussels, when you'd put in for Mir-II while still in flight school.
She didn't understand. That was hard to take, when it made such better sense to expect the opposite, that with naming your condition and with adulthood under your belt you could make somebody see as you did. Certainly you couldn't when the dream first found you, so long ago that the jolt of it is hazy now, like some childhood Christmas morning. When it found you, you had barely learned the word for it. You're almost sure it appeared in your dreams before you even knew the word for dreams. In color it was not red, but something like it. And even though in time you learned the names for shades of not-quite-red, the noise of a whole world rolling round and round before you, carmine, vermillion, the world itself had no true name, only a moniker. It had a voice and a body, but it wasn't really alive; it wasn't really even an object, being too large to have edges. It was more like the crest of some huge soundwave, the reddest and tallest and loudest thing in your private universe.
It still is. It is a mountain and it will not come to you. It's nearly enough to cancel out the ambient noise of this world, the one you have already all but abandoned. The green of new leaves. The granular paleness of the concrete benches that line the atrium. Around dawn Kanika shows up with more printouts. Though in heels she arrives quietly, like a good tracker, only given away by a whiff of tobacco-smoke.
"Sorry to bother you, sir, but Doctor Ogata made some corrections. Should I ask them to move final checks down to 0500?"
"No need," you say, since that would probably screw up scheduling for the whole morning.
"Got it." In response to your look Kanika takes one last pull on a half-gone cigarette and promptly stomps it out. "I'm probably getting reassigned," she adds, seemingly by way of excuse, as if it were her job and not Yakov's to contain the Times Web people.
You remind her it isn't.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but honestly I think it's bullshit, slandering the program this late in the game. I believe in free press and everything, but that editorial is doing far worse damage by calling us murderers than our people are by sending you out there. It has to mean something, you going out there. Something better than that." She catches herself. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said anything. I think it's the stress."
You shrug. "Valid point, all the same."
"Sorry. Thanks, I guess so. Do you--" Kanika clears her throat. "You must already miss all this, huh."
She smiles. "No, I mean like. Trees."
"Naturally," you answer, because she seems the sort to kindly lie to. "Very much."
"Yeah." With obvious relief she accepts your invitation to take the unoccupied half of the bench. "But if I had that kind of chance myself..." She flicks some ash from her shoe, then looks all the way up to where the atrium glass meets the alloyed buttresses of the upper floors. "I don't know."
You look with her, out past the glass to the air and the light of dawn, the low hangars of the airfield and the far edge of the planted woodland. Over by the scooping wind-break there stands a monolith of sorts, a tribute to the International Air and Space Organization built by NASA just after the depression, on the decommissioning of the last of the original SRB orbital rockets. The structure forms a conic section that curves radically away from the ground, carrying on its zenith a model of the shuttle Discovery. Its metal is a dull but steady chord of grey.
"Oh, also," Kanika says. "I'm supposed to give you these."
The set of pencils Yakov's passed along is pristine. The bottom of their slim case features a durable sharpener, set in a small groove which integrates perfectly with the rest of the container. The logo down the side reads CREST Engineering. You can actually imagine Dale Yakov running the secret project, intuitive to the point of caricature.
It strikes you only then and with a certain gravity that Arienne was off by a degree or two, when she made that metaphor about the sea. You're hardly any kind of clipper-ship captain, for you rely on little outside your own body to convey you past the pull of the Earth. You've much more in common with traveling surfers, ever in search of the perfect wave, chasing a dream to a place that might one day swallow you whole, sublimely untempered by distance.
"Those are really neat," says Kanika. "I guess you'll need some good paper to go with, sir."
The name of each shade is punched cleanly into the corresponding lacquer of its pencil. Among them there is a full chorus of just red, all kinds of it.
Which is the right one, you wonder. When it's there before you like a vast slab of cooling iron, when you finally dare to stand on its back, will you know whether it's carmine or vermillion or neither, whether it is something else, so liminal there is no earthly name for it? Though you have moved towards it all your life, only the simplest words could ever come up in you to describe it, for it is such a color, such a color.